Lawmakers irked by lagging CIO authorities

While applauding the best-ever progress made on the FITARA scorecard, oversight lawmakers are frustrated with slow progress in some aspects of IT modernization.

U.S. Capitol (Photo by f11photo / Shutterstock)
 

While applauding the best-ever progress made on the FITARA scorecard, oversight lawmakers also expressed frustration with some agencies' slowness in progressing on aspects of IT modernization.

On the seventh go-round, no agencies' grades declined from the previous round for the first time in the history of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act scorecard, and no agency received a failing grade. However, persisting slowness hampering CIOs and IT modernization irked members of the House Oversight and Government Reform IT Subcommittee at a Dec. 12 hearing.

The area that most rankled members from both sides of the aisle was the internal obstacles to empowering agency CIOs to move and use money for modernization efforts.

"The whole reason for [the Modernizing Government Technology Act] was the savings" accrued through IT modernization "is then transferred into a fund [for the CIO] to have access to for further modernization," said subcommittee chair Will Hurd (R-Texas). "What drives me nuts is that there's other people in the organization preventing that from happening."

However, there's some confusion on the agency side. Sheila Conley, deputy CIO for the Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers while agencies can, "we don't have the authority to transfer funds from appropriated accounts into non-appropriated accounts."

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) also lamented the idea that agencies believed appropriators need to grant annual authorization for money transfers.

"The intent of Congress was not ambiguous," he said. "If we're only going to allow the appropriators to make the authorization, then this law simply had no effect, and it will have no effect ever."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), an original co-sponsor of FITARA, proposed requesting a memo or guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to clarify what agency CIOs can do when it comes to transferring money.

Federal CIO Suzette Kent told FCW following the hearing that OMB works with agencies to sort out any confusion and barriers.

"Everyone understands the intent," she said, adding that some agencies are still "having to work through some nuances" about what CIO authorities are currently permitted and how to get them permitted.

After the hearing, Hurd made clear he doesn't believe the issue is a matter of agencies needing to overcome "institutional barriers."

"The agencies are the ones creating the institutional barriers," he said. "Ultimately, the problem here is procurement people and CFOs getting in the way of losing, what they think, is some of their responsibilities."

Another issue Hurd took issue with was that eight agency CIOs still lack a direct reporting structure to their heads or deputy heads.

"The CIO should report directly to the agency head, period, end of discussion, no excuses," he said.

Carol Harris, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said the "primary issue" in changing the reporting structure was that "organizations are very resistant to change.… It's cultural resistance."

Lawmakers also had questions about OMB's proposal to change the metrics for data center consolidation. OMB proposed changing these metrics and has a comment period open until the end of the month.

In explaining the possible move, Kent pointed out that 18 agencies received A grades, the most of any category, and "it is a healthy process … as we advance our standing in certain areas to continue to evolve the scorecard."

"What we're intending to do," she said, "is have a healthy dialogue about evolving the scorecard, and when we have success, that's great, let's move on to the next thing and have the measurements reflect that."

Six of the 24 agencies measured on the scorecard still lack permanent CIOs. Kent said that she has "had conversations with all of those agencies, and they are acting with urgency," adding specifically that James Gfrerer, the administration's pick to serve as CIO of the Department of Veterans Affairs, "has made it to the top of the Senate list."

"A few others, I think you will see some action in the near term, and they'll be going through transition," she said.

Overall though, Kent and lawmakers said they were pleased with agencies' general progress, and Harris noted scorecard 7.0 "has definitely been the strongest showing, by far, for the agencies" to date.

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